When a then little known Lovlina Borgohain began winning Olympic bouts, politicians in her state of Assam – including the CM - put up hoardings to wish her the best. Strangely, they used their own photos instead of Lovlina’s. As Twitterati blew up in criticism, an unmindful Lovlina did what none from her state had done before: win an Olympic medal.
She, within days, became such a famous face in Assam, that if she wants, she can get into politics and in a few short years take revenge on the poster scandal by becoming the state’s Chief Minister.
Why shouldn’t Lovlina take that option? Because statistically speaking, neither she nor the other five individual medal winners of Tokyo 2020 will win one at Paris 2024. In Olympics’ 125-year history – if you discount British-Indian Norman Pritchard’s two silvers in 1900 – only two among 20 individual Olympic medal winners, have managed to win a second: Sushil Kumar and P V Sindhu.
It isn’t lack of talent that makes our players incapable of winning again at the Olympics since they do defend their titles in other events. But something does happen once an Indian wins an Olympic medal. To understand what, let’s take a quick look at two winners: independent India’s first individual Olympic medallist and its first individual gold medallist.
India is lucky that the brilliant Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav was born into a family of wrestlers and picked up wrestling before independence. That’s because he was considered of the wrong ‘caste’ for sports, that too a high contact one like wrestling. But a nationalist who wanted to see the tri-colour unfurl at the Olympics, Jadhav fought odds more unsurmountable than any other Indian medal winner.
He stunned better opponents despite playing for the first time on a mat in London 1948 and finished sixth. In Helsinki 1952 he’d have won a better medal than his bronze if only any Indian official was around to fight for him after he was asked to fight his semi-final bout immediately after winning the quarters without the then stipulated 30-minute rest. An exhausted Jadhav lost.
Despite his win, the ‘pocket dynamo’ - as Jadhav was nicknamed - faced tremendous odds all his life. Many opponents refused to fight him due to his caste, he was overlooked for almost everything on a regular basis, including his pension from his police job and died in penury in 1984.
Abhinav Bindra’s story is the exact opposite. His father A S Bindra runs a successful agro-food business in Punjab and was so determined to make his son a winner that he spent crores to build him an international standard shooting range, swimming pool and gym at home in Chandigarh. The rest is history, with Abhinav winning more medals than most athletes in the country. Yet even he was unable to win a second Olympic medal despite participating in three. After Rio 2016, he retired.
But should he have, since shooting has no age limit. Oscar Swahn won a shooting gold in 1912 when he was 65 and Jerry Millner won a gold in the free rifle at 1000 yards event aged 61.
Today you can find Abhinav on TV selling Rummy Culture with the words: “If I were not a shooting champion, I’d have definitely become a rummy champ.” He is part of India’s TOPS program that aims to win India medals and also runs a company using technology on athletes.
In most developing nations, if an athlete wins at the Olympics, chances are high he/she will win another at the next. Dozens have won more than two Olympic medals. That has never happened in India because K D Jadhav effect is what happens to most Indian sportspersons: they win Olympic medals inspite of sports federations not because of them. Petty jealousies, rivalries, political appointments and all-round corruption makes life so bad for athletes, the 20 individual Olympic medals in 125 years of Olympics, seem like a miracle.
The other problem is that once one wins a medal – despite the rewards – the path still does not get easy enough. Instead, as everyone tries to appropriate their success and fame, the winners are expected to join the same system that failed to support them. If they walked on a minefield of egos of petty officials before winning, post their medal they walk on one laid also with razors: they’ll get hurt no matter what.
Thankfully this seems to be changing. Instead of authorities deciding the fate of the players, it is their performance that is increasingly being allowed to do the talking. Errant officials are being fired like shooting coach Jaspal Rana was after Manu Bhaker’s complaint. However, as the treatment of Vinesh Phogat shows, scapegoating athletes still exist among officials.
The major problem though, is what I call ‘cashing-in-and-cashing-out’. India has been so starved for medals that the smallest win is celebrated and leads to phenomenal cash incentives, jobs, TV appearances and ad offers. For athletes – many of whom also play to secure their family’s future – this provides an opportunity to cash in on all their hard work.
Problem is these cash incentives come with non-stop engagements. A winner is expected to entertain people, go to functions, shake hands with the same politicians who refused help before the Olympics, learn to act in ads etc. In short, Olympic medal winners – as you might be observing right now – become monkeys expected to perform on call.
Then there is the lure of politics which traps the best, like it did double-trap shooter Rajyavardhan Rathore who became India’s first individual silver Olympic medallist at Athens 2004. Technically he too could have continued to compete but he joined the BJP in 2013. Olympic fame could red-carpet one’s path into politics.
The ideal thing for most Olympic medallists serious about defending their medals in the next Games, is to get back to practicing the moment the Olympics are over because winning a medal takes years of dedicated work. Trouble is, the monetary offers that come their way, don’t stand forever. There is a small window of opportunity one is expected to leverage.
On the other hand, if one does agree to cash in, more offers follow. If a player gets too busy encashing offers, she’ll soon realise that years have passed and they’ve gathered rust or gotten too used to the money and good life to bother shedding blood, sweat and tears to prepare and compete.
The fight to win an Olympic medal the first time is tough enough, twice can permanently damage an athlete. That is also because sports today is life-consuming. Unlike in the past, you cannot live a ‘normal’ life while doing great in sports. There’s so much competition, so much data to churn that a sportsperson has to give it her all if she expects even to be decent in her game. To excel needs her to be at a whole new level altogether. It is hence easier for many to just hang in their boots than stay in the game, especially also because the weight of expectation of a medal-hungry nation can hang over their heads like Damocles sword.
The equation also changes depending on the state a player belongs to. Bajrang Punia and Ravi Dahiya come from Haryana that has had previous Olympic medal winners. But Lovlina is from Assam that has had none. Thus, the state’s people will celebrate her not for a month or two, but at least till another Olympic medallist emerges from the state. Right now – as I witnessed first-hand - she is the most popular person in the state, and if like Rathore, she decides to join politics she can rise quickly to the top.
These are heady things to consider for a head that rests on a 23-year-old’s shoulders. Would she be able to pull herself out of these traps, or will she succumb to the flattery – like many do? If she – or any of the other medallists – gets satisfied with all the eulogies, they’d be finished because the most important trait needed to win at the world’s highest level – is the hunger to be the best, a sense of dissatisfaction no matter how well you perform, and the readiness to let one’s life be consumed in the quest.
Besides, what more can another Olympic medal get an athlete that she hasn’t yet got. Of course if they can better the colour of the medal, it’d make sense. But that isn’t easy even for the best of the best as the smallest factor can derail one’s performance at any event.
And let’s not even talk about our Paralympians. First is our general ignorance towards their tremendously lonely and Herculean fight where they not only have to excel at their game, they have to deal with their disability while doing so. Though their fight is much harder than that of a fully-functional human, we tend to give less importance to them. And worst of all, their federation has been banned multiple times both in India and abroad.
Yet, you’ll be amazed to know that while the Olympics has not given us a single triple medal winner, we have two in Paralympics: Joginder Singh Bedi and Devendra Jhajharia. Sadly, it is only this year, that they have begun getting the attention they deserve and thus have finally reached a position where they can leverage upon their wins and fame.
For Indian Olympic winners though, the second medal is often a bigger fight. The first medal is always won by an unknown athletes’ hunger to prove herself, practicing with a vengeance while being hidden from the world. E.g. forget rest of India, even Assam didn’t know Lovlina before she blazed a trail at the Olympics. Once an athlete has done it, she attracts everything she had wished for. Spending four more years to get more of the same, may not really feel like such a good deal to some when – unlike K D Jadhav – today most winners can live off one medal for the rest of their life.
To end this inability to win a second medal, the government and its sports federations must set up mental-trainers, sports psychologists to counsel every Olympian – those who lose and the winners. The medallists must be counselled about their future: do they want to pull out of the game to enjoy the spoils or go for greater glory. Winners should also be warned of the fame that can both ruin careers or with the right guidance help them shine better. Without this guidance, most winners walk into a trap life has not prepared them for and whose learnings often comes too late and at a high cost for them and the nation – future Olympic medals.
As Indians we are celebrating our unprecedented medal haul at Tokyo 2020. We fancy ourselves as a nation of Olympians. But what we are right now, is a one-trick pony. To be true champions our athletes will have to be mentally, emotionally and physically strong enough to win an Olympic medal again. And again.
When the first Indian wins a third Olympic medal, that day we can claim to have arrived.
(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. He loves to let his pen roam the intersection of artificial intelligence, consciousness, and quantum mechanics. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)
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